GAINING:
The Truth About Life
After Eating Disorders

Essays, Articles, & Nonfiction Works
by Aimee Liu

RESOURCES
These treatment facilities offer specialized programs for eating disorders, including men and women over age 21.
Discover the many ways others are using their voices, talents, and passions to turn suffering into creativity and hope.
Links to websites and organizations that provide information and referrals.
References cited in GAINING
Books
How do anorexia and bulimia impact life AFTER recovery? GAINING is one of the first books about eating disorders to connect the latest scientific insights to the personal truth of life before, during, and especially after anorexia and bulimia.
"I've read countless books about eating disorders, but I've never seen one like this. Combining the professional wisdom of leading experts with personal experiences from women and men all over the globe, this book fills a gap on the recovery bookshelf. Anyone who has been touched by an eating disorder needs to read this."—Jenni Schaefer, author of Life without Ed
America's first memoir of anorexia, and one of the earliest books about eating disorders, originally published in 1979

Newsletter

Kindness and Joy

October 24, 2007

Dear Friends,

I’d like to share with you my reflections after a remarkable weekend. On Friday I addressed a group of women in Wilmette, Illinois, about body image; on Saturday a group of patients at Sheppard Pratt’s Center for Eating Disorders in Maryland; and on Sunday an audience of patients, recovered patients, parents, and therapists at Sheppard Pratt’s conference center. Then, when I arrived at the Baltimore airport to head for home, I discovered Piero Ferrucci’s gem of a book THE POWER OF KINDNESS in the airport bookshop. That did it. I’d been riding a wave of kindness all weekend, and was now officially high on it.

The kindness was certainly not all mine. In Illinois, those 100 beautiful mid-life women were there in order to raise support for nursing scholarships. Pass it on, is the phrase that comes to mind. Pass on your wisdom, your profit, your compassion, your concern for the future. Pass it on by connecting and sharing something far more real than the images of celebrity blasted at us by the tabloids or the dressed-up children posing as women in Vogue. They all understood what I was talking about. They all knew what a lie we’ve been trained to swallow whole. They, for the most part, have escaped the curse of full-blown eating disorders themselves. But they’ve watched the poison sting children, nieces, students, and neighbors who have struggled to “perfect” themselves by destroying their bodies. Many of them have felt the cold, sharp sweep of the curse against their skin, even if they’ve pulled away in time. Others make it a full time job to avoid the poison by staying just fit enough, just thin enough to keep the curse at bay. They welcomed me to remind them simply that all of us are human, and that means we’re imperfect, in fact, united and made more interesting to each other by our imperfections. They welcomed me to remind them that our bodies are miracles, just by moving our arms, let alone the mind-boggling ability (the audience, remember, was entirely female) to produce and feed and care for babies! They welcomed me to remind them of all that we should see and accept as obvious wonder, but that our culture and society have assaulted for so long that the obvious has become the novel and rare. They allowed me to remind them that we all need to show more appreciation to and for each other – including ourselves. Their kindness was reflected in their gracious invitation, their willingness to listen, their generosity in paying for the privilege of supporting a scholarship that would support others who want to help others. A regular daisy chain of kindness. This is how the world really works, as Ferrucci reminded me in his grand little book.

In Maryland, the audiences and particularly the stories shared with me afterwards made me cry with their kindness. I will never forget the honor of being someone they felt moved to confide in.

Then there were the fathers, again the lovely fathers. There struggling to understand their wives and daughters. There ready to admit the gulf, the difficulty of understanding. There to admit their confusion and longing. There to admit their frailty, which matched, measure for measure, the frailty of the women in their lives who did not know how to cope. These sweet men were so filled with kindness. How they wanted to help, to make things well and their women whole, to mend the rip in the universe that had opened over their heads and beneath their feet – without warnings that they could detect. And for their “failure” to detect the warning they felt such guilt! That is kindness at its most complex. My kindness in coming to speak was nothing compared to theirs in coming to listen. One father, involved in a divorce, was by force sending his teenage daughter to testify before the judge charged with tearing his family apart. His daughter, a splendidly striking young woman with large hungry eyes and a style all her own of scarves and hat and leggings and color, just needed to be reminded that she was not at fault and all of us have to deal with madness at times that is not our own; that all of us at times or perhaps every day have to remind ourselves that our parents’ madness is not our own even when we have to live with it; that all of us have to get through times and duties we wish to God we did not have to get through; that all the bad as well as the good is part of this mess we call life; that only out of ALL this mess can we create true beauty and find true peace and comprehension. That family showed more kindness in sharing their story with me, by far, than I was able to show them by my encouragement and advice.

“I give love,” my friend Carolyn tells me. “I give thanks.” Carolyn is in her 20th year of stage 4 cancer and receives standing ovations from her radiation and chemo teams for her spirit of generosity. “And,” she concludes her explanation of her survival, “I see what is possible.”

Carolyn, for me, defines The Power of Kindness. She cares for her dogs and horses. She knows the babies and grandparents of all her neighbors. She listens to her friends’ sad stories of tortured love. She plants her garden. She makes paintings of light and pears and meadows and welcoming rooms. She loves her husband and her home and all that both embody. She does not cling but luxuriates in life. She does not deny but respects the pain her body is forced to endure.

This weekend, I thought of Carolyn every waking minute. I evoked her name every day. I live in the illumination of her example. My way of showing kindness is to honor all that Carolyn has taught me. “You never know what you get to feel grateful for.” This is Carolyn’s mantra. What joy we have to discover and to share in this unpredictable life!


Be well, always-
Aimee
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Anorexia's Red Herring

Too-skinny models may be a factor in spawning eating disorders, but they're just one of many.
By Aimee Liu

Published in the Los
Angeles Times,
September 22, 2006

THIS WEEK in Madrid, heroin chic was prohibited. For the first time, the organizers of a major international fashion show recognized that by showcasing emaciated models, the fashion industry promotes eating disorders. Under pressure from the Madrid government, medical associations and women's advocacy groups, the Assn. of Fashion Designers of Spain finally rejected morbidly thin models.

When selecting models for this year's Madrid fashion week, which ends today, the designers set a minimum body mass ratio (calculated on the basis of height and weight). Their required ratio was 18 — meaning a minimum of 119 pounds for a 5-foot, 8-inch woman. The bar was by no means high. For ordinary mortals, a ratio of 18.5 qualifies as underweight. Even so, five of the 68 auditioning models flunked.

To understand why they flunked, we need to look beyond the fashion industry to the true causes of eating disorders. These include genetic predisposition, temperament, family dynamics and personal trauma. I know; modeling fueled but did not cause my own adolescent eating disorder nearly 40 years ago.

Twiggy was my generation's Kate Moss. I fixated on her at age 13, and by the time I started modeling one year later, I'd dropped 30 pounds. Being skinny became my identity. At 5 feet, 7 inches, I didn't weigh more than 100 pounds again until I was 21.

My anorexia ultimately destroyed my career.

Models were — and still are — paid to make fashions look good, and that meant fitting sample wardrobes. Reigning teen cover girls Shelley Hack and Colleen Corby understood this. In dressing room lunches between shoots, I'd watch them wolf down tuna salad sandwiches while I pretended not to be hungry. They were lucky, I told myself, they could get away with eating. I began to lose jobs when I became so thin that stylists couldn't even pin dresses on me to look right. Still, I felt I couldn't eat.

Like many anorexic models, I was drawn to the fashion world because it reinforced my anorexia. I would be willing to bet that most, if not all, of the runway models disqualified in Madrid fit the same pattern — as do many emaciated gymnasts and ice skaters.

Three years ago, I began interviewing medical researchers as well as middle-age women and men with histories of anorexia and bulimia. I wanted to find out what we know now that we didn't know in the 1970s, when I quit my self-imposed hunger strike. I learned that researchers now are discovering genetic links between eating disorders, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Genes also shape the temperaments of people who are prone to anorexia and bulimia, although the mechanisms for this are still poorly understood.

A landmark 2003 British study found that certain innate childhood traits, such as perfectionism, inflexibility and cautiousness, each increase an individual's risk for anorexia by a factor of seven. Someone like me, possessing all five traits measured in the study, is 35 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than a daredevil who happily wears mismatched socks.

Further, eating disorders are triggered not by pictures of Kate Moss but by sudden or cumulative experiences of intolerable emotion, such as shame or fear. Puberty unleashes a natural tidal wave of these emotions. Adolescence also happens to be the age when rates of sexual abuse soar, academic and social pressures intensify and parents become a source of embarrassment rather than solace. It makes sense that this is prime time for eating disorders. Obsession with weight offers a distraction. Extreme weight loss signals distress.

It also makes sense that rates of anorexia and bulimia spike in middle age, when many women again face emotional turmoil. Women over 30 now make up a full third of residential patients at the Renfrew Center, a Philadelphia treatment facility specializing in eating disorders. Divorce, grief, the empty nest — all can trigger illness if the individual possesses a genetic predisposition.

The onset of eating disorders is like the firing of a gun. Genetics form the gun. Cultural influences such as the fashion industry and familial attitudes about weight then load it. And intense emotional distress pulls the trigger.

Healthier figures on international catwalks may help to disarm the gun. However, of the more than 40 women I interviewed, only a handful had ever paid any attention to fashion. When they started starving, they were asking for help, not admiration. Those models who failed the test in Madrid need treatment, not rebuke.



Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times